Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s Nordic enlargement fuels row ahead of June summit

NATO has repeatedly warned Turkey that the Russian S-400 missile defense system is incompatible with other NATO weapons systems, not least the F-35, a new generation multi-role stealth fighter jet. (File/AFP)
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Updated 19 May 2022

Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s Nordic enlargement fuels row ahead of June summit

  • Ankara accuses Finland and Sweden of harboring terror groups
  • Erdogan’s personal concern is staying in power ahead of looming elections in 2023 amid a troubled economy, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s decision to open accession talks with Finland and Sweden has sparked debate about concessions Ankara might extract to greenlight membership for the two Scandinavian countries — the biggest change in European security architecture for decades. 

Any country seeking to join NATO requires consensus approval from its 30 members, with the next NATO summit in Madrid coming in late June. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that Ankara, a NATO member since 1952 and possessing the alliance’s second largest military, does not support membership for Finland and Sweden, accusing both countries of harboring terror groups.  

Turkey has told allies that it will say no to Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications, Erdogan said in a video posted on his Twitter account on Thursday.

“This move, which has poured cold water on expectations about Finland and Sweden’s ‘historic’ accession to the military alliance, was not really a surprise,” said Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies.

Turkey has long criticized Sweden’s policy of turning a blind eye to the presence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party on its soil despite being classified as terrorist group by the US and EU.  

However, for Levin, what Erdogan wants in return has a number of possible interpretations. 

“Sweden’s policy against the PKK and its Syrian Kurdish YPG offshoot in northern Syria was an issue of concern not only for the ruling government in Turkey, but also for the national security establishment for a long time. In that respect, the disagreement over this critical issue has been a widely-shared sentiment,” he told Arab News. 

Finland and Sweden have imposed arms embargoes since 2019 over Turkey’s cross-border operation into Syria against Syrian Kurdish militants. Contacts between top Swedish officials and YPG leaders have been condemned by Ankara.

But, for Levin, there is always a domestic political dimension behind such decisions in Turkey. 

“Erdogan’s personal concern is staying in power ahead of the looming elections in 2023 amid a troubled economy,” he said. 

“Playing hardball with the West is likely to appeal (to a) domestic audience and consolidate stronger public support that needs nationalistic motivations.”

However, Levin is not convinced Turkey’s opposition to NATO enlargement will persuade Washington to approve Turkey’s request in October to buy 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, and approximately 80 modernization kits for its current warplanes, which the US has so far refrained from doing.

“The presence of (the) Russian-made S-400 defense system on Turkish soil renders the acquisition of the F-35 aircraft impossible because of the interoperability problems. I’m not sure that the US Congress can approve the sale of other modernization kits as well because it can be considered as a concession against Turkey’s blackmail,” he said.  

On Wednesday, Swedish Minister for Defense Peter Hultqvist held meetings with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin in Washington, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his US counterpart Antony Blinken in New York. 

Cavusoglu also held recent talks with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts in Berlin. 

“Negotiations are going on to reach a diplomatic resolution,” Levin said. 

“But, I don’t expect that Sweden (will) give some kind of public concessions on human rights that could drive the ruling Social Democrats into (a) corner ahead of the parliamentary elections in September.”

Sweden currently has six sitting Kurdish members of parliament.

“Giving up the Kurdish cause by extraditing 33 people accused of terrorism charges in Turkey will not play well with the Swedish government, as the country hosts a wide Kurdish diaspora,” Levin added.  

Turkey wants the Nordic duo to stop supporting Kurdish militant groups on their soil, to refrain from having contact with PKK members, and to lift bans on arms sales to Turkey.   

For Karol Wasilewski, director of actionable analytics at Warsaw-based agency NEOŚwiat, Turkey wants to show its NATO allies that it is dead serious when it says that its security interests, particularly its sensitivity about PKK and YPG issues, should be respected. 

“For a long time, and not without reason, Turkey has had a feeling that the approach of its allies to its security interests does not correspond to the country’s contribution to the alliance’s security,” he told Arab News.

But Wasilewski thinks that the problem will be solved with negotiations between Turkey, Sweden and Finland, with the support of the US and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. 

“Perhaps Erdogan’s statement that Turkey can’t agree on membership for countries that sanction Turkey was a signal of area where the compromise could be made,” he said.

“Turkey would definitely drive a hard bargain, but I find it very difficult to imagine that this would translate to a hard veto.

“Turkey is well aware of the benefits that Finish and Swedish membership to NATO would bring, and that blocking the enlargement would result in immense pressure from the rest of (the) member countries. And Turkey simply can’t afford a strong backlash from the West.”  

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, thinks that Turkey’s main objection to the Nordic expansion of NATO is rooted in existing PKK fundraising networks in Sweden, and Sweden’s public ties with YPG officials.  

“Following closed-door conversations, Sweden could take measures to satisfy Turkey’s sensitivities,” he told Arab News. 

Stoltenberg also made it clear that Turkey’s concerns will be addressed in a way that does not delay the membership process. 

Cagaptay thinks that there are several explanations about Erdogan’s hardline rhetoric on NATO enlargement. 

“He decided to up the ante to publicly embarrass Stockholm to get concrete steps,” Cagaptay said.  

“There is also a Russian angle, where one veto inside NATO against Nordic expansion would make Russian President Vladimir Putin extremely happy.

“On the US side, Erdogan also signals that his objection to the NATO enlargement may be lifted if Biden convinces Sen. Bob Menendez in lifting his objections against Turkish defense exports,” Cagaptay added.

The US continues its active diplomacy addressing Turkey’s objections, as US national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on Wednesday.

“Turkey’s concerns can be addressed. Finland and Sweden are working directly with Turkey. But we’re also talking to the Turks to try to help facilitate,” he said.

According to Cagaptay, this latest crisis, besides showing Turkey to be akin to a Russian ally inside NATO, has helped Erdogan to again project his global strongman image domestically. 

“At the end of the day, he will write a narrative of the political war he has waged against Europe, and will be emerging a winner of this fight,” he said.


Market blast in north Syria kills at least 9, injures dozens

Updated 43 sec ago

Market blast in north Syria kills at least 9, injures dozens

BEIRUT: A rocket attack on a crowded market in a town held by Turkey-backed opposition fighters in northern Syria Friday killed at least nine people and wounded dozens, an opposition war monitor and a paramedic group reported.
The attack on the town of Al-Bab came days after a Turkish airstrike killed at least 11 Syrian troops and US-backed Kurdish fighters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, blamed Syrian government forces for the shelling, saying it was in retaliation for the Turkish airstrike.
The Observatory said the attack killed at least 10 and wounded more than 30.
The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, had a lower death toll, saying nine people, including children, were killed and 28 were wounded. The paramedic group said its members evacuated some of the wounded and the dead bodies.
Discrepancies in casualty figures immediately after attacks are not uncommon in Syria.
Turkey has launched three major cross-border operations into Syria since 2016 and controls some territories in the north.
Although the fighting has waned over the past few years, shelling and airstrikes are not uncommon in northern Syria that is home to the last major rebel stronghold in the country.
Syria’s conflict that began in March 2011, has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
President Bashar Assad’s forces now control most parts of Syria with the help of their allies, Russia and Iran.

Palestinian killed in Israeli West Bank raid: Palestinian ministry

Updated 27 min 55 sec ago

Palestinian killed in Israeli West Bank raid: Palestinian ministry

  • Israeli military say soldiers came under fire during a raid in the town
  • Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories Presse: A Palestinian man was killed Friday by Israeli forces during a raid in the north of the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry said.
Salah Sawafta, 58, “died of critical wounds, sustained by live bullets from the occupation (Israeli military) in the head, in Tubas this morning,” a ministry statement said.
The Israeli military said soldiers came under fire during a raid in the town.
During an operation in “Tubas, several suspects hurled Molotov cocktails and opened fire at (Israeli) troops, who responded with fire,” the army said in a statement, adding “hits were identified.”
The mayor of Tubas, Hossam Daraghmeh, said Sawafta had been leaving dawn prayers when he was shot.
“He left the mosque and was heading to his house wearing a prayer robe. There was a vengeful soldier stationed in a building near the municipality who shot him in the head,” he said.
Daraghmeh said Sawafta had been unarmed when he was hit.
“This man did not have a stone or anything in his hand,” he said.
The Israeli military said five people were detained in overnight raids across the West Bank.
On Thursday, a 20-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli troops during clashes in the northern West Bank city of Nablus.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967, when it seized the territory from Jordan.


Algeria wildfires ‘all under control’: civil defense

Updated 30 min 12 sec ago

Algeria wildfires ‘all under control’: civil defense

  • Since the beginning of August, almost 150 blazes have destroyed hundreds of hectares (acres) of forest in Africa’s largest country

Algiers: Wildfires, which killed at least 38 people and left a trail of destruction in eastern Algeria this week, are now under control, a civil defense official told AFP on Friday.
“All of the fires have been completely brought under control,” said fire brigade Col. Farouk Achour, of the civil defense department.
Since the beginning of August, almost 150 blazes have destroyed hundreds of hectares (acres) of forest in Africa’s largest country.
Deadly fires have become an annual scourge in Algeria, where climate change has turned large areas of forest into a tinderbox in the blistering summer months.
The justice ministry launched an inquiry after Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud suggested some of the fires were started deliberately, and authorities on Thursday announced four arrests of suspected arsonists.
Authorities have been accused of being ill-prepared, with few firefighting aircraft available despite record casualties in last year’s blazes and a cash windfall from gas exports with global energy prices soaring.

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A new honeymoon for Turkey-Israel ties may begin with envoy exchange

Updated 18 August 2022

A new honeymoon for Turkey-Israel ties may begin with envoy exchange

  • Timing coincides with efforts by both countries to build relationships in region, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Israel and Turkey have announced the upgrading of diplomatic relations and the return of their ambassadors and consuls general after years of strained ties between the two nations. 

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid greeted such a diplomatic breakthrough as an “important asset for regional stability and very important economic news for the citizens of Israel.

According to Dr. Nimrod Goren, president of the Mitvim Institute and co-founder of Diplomeds — The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy — the announcement on the upgrading of ties marks a diplomatic success.

"It is the culmination of a gradual process that has taken place over more than a year, during which Israel and Turkey have worked to rebuild trust, launch new dialogue channels, adopt a positive agenda, re-energize cooperation, confront security challenges, and find ways to contain differences," Goren told Arab News.

“Based on these positive developments, restoring relations at the ambassadorial level is now seen as a natural step, perhaps even a long overdue one,” he said. 

“It was important to seal this move before internal politics gets in the way, as elections in both countries are drawing near,” Goren added.

Goren said that the timing also “coincides with efforts by both Israel and Turkey to improve and deepen their various relationships in the region.”

Turkey and Israel, once regional allies, expelled their ambassadors in 2018 over the killing of dozens of Palestinians by Israeli forces during protests along the Gaza border.

Relations were completely frozen after the death of nine Turkish activists over an Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish Mavi Marmara ship in 2010. 

Since then, many attempts have been made to mend ties, especially in the energy sector, and in trade and tourism, which emerged as strategic avenues for cooperation. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Isaac Herzog have spoken on the phone several times and Herzog visited Ankara last March. 

As part of mutual trust-building efforts, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also visited Jerusalem in May, marking the first visit to Israel by a Turkish foreign minister in 15 years. His visit was reciprocated by Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister, in June. 

The two countries also cooperated in counter-terrorism efforts following Iranian assassination plots against a Turkish-Israeli businessperson as well as Israeli tourists in Istanbul. Turkey took steps to curtail the movements of Hamas within the country. 

They also signed a civil aviation agreement last month. 

Dr. Gokhan Cinkara, an expert from Necmettin Erbakan University, thinks that shifts in regional geopolitics are the main determinants for Turkey’s new efforts for normalization. 

“The competition between status quo and revisionism in the region is over. Consequently, every country has alternatives and can be replaced, which is also the case for Turkey. Due to the economic crisis and geopolitical deadlock that the country is passing through, it was inevitable for Turkey to search for new options,” he told Arab News.  

“The appointment of diplomats will ensure that bilateral relations will continue to operate under an institutional routine.”  

The ambassador to Israel is expected to be appointed soon. Both countries are also set to hold a joint economic commission meeting in September. 

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said that Ankara would continue to support the Palestinian cause. 

“Despite the new chapter in relations, Israel and Turkey still have differences of opinion on key policy issues, including Israeli-Palestinian relations and the Eastern Mediterranean,” Goren said. 

“These differences will not go away, but Israel and Turkey are aware of the need to be sensitive in how they deal with them and to put in place bilateral mechanisms to regularly engage on these issues,” Goren said.

“If Israel and Turkey can somehow support each other on the road to conflict resolution with third countries (e.g., Turkey with Egypt, Israel with the Palestinians) — that will be a major benefit of the new chapter in ties.”

As bilateral relations have been moving on a positive trajectory since Israeli President Herzog’s visit to Ankara, Selin Nasi, London representative of the Ankara Policy Center and a respected researcher on Turkish Israeli relations, pointed to the timing of the envoy exchange. 

“The Israeli side has been taking the process a bit slowly in order to understand whether Ankara was sincere in its efforts to mend fences,” she told Arab News. 

Ankara’s “calm and measured response in the face of tensions in Jerusalem and in Gaza in the last couple of months and its full cooperation with Israeli intelligence against Iranian plots which targeted Israeli citizens in Turkey have seemingly reassured Israel’s concerns,” she said.

Nasi thinks that the ambassadorial exchange shows Turkey and Israel’s willingness to give the normalization process a formal framework, as well as their readiness to move to the next phase. 

“Considering the upcoming elections in Israel in November, normalization of diplomatic ties is likely to provide a shield against the interference of domestic politics,” she said. 

Although Turkey and Israel have managed to turn a new page in bilateral relations, Nasi thinks that it is equally important to see what they are going to write in this new chapter.  

“Both countries have a lot to gain from developing cooperation at a time when the US is shifting its focus and energy to the Pacific region and Iran is about to become a nuclear power,” she said.

“On the other hand, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put energy security front and center once again. It revived hopes that the pipeline project that would carry Israeli natural gas via Turkey could be eventually realized,” she said. “While the unsettled Cyprus question remains the elephant in the room, it all comes down to the sides’ mending political trust. We may therefore see some openings in the future.”

Goren thinks that a relaunching of the Israel-Turkey strategic dialogue and the resumption of regular high-level contacts will also assist the countries lessen mutual misperceptions — related, for example, to Israel’s ties with the Kurds and Turkey’s ties with Iran — and avoid gaps in expectations.  

“Israel and Turkey should make sure that this time — unlike what happened in the previous decade — their upgrade of ties will be sustainable and long-term,” Goren said. 

The exchange of ambassadors has been also welcomed by the US.

“Today’s announcement that Israel and Turkey are fully restoring their diplomatic relations. This move will bring increased security, stability, and prosperity to their peoples as well as the region,” tweeted Jake Sullivan, national security adviser at White House. 

Nasi also said that Turkey’s relations with Israel “have always been a factor of its relations with the West and with the US in particular. In the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, Ankara has been threading a fine path with Russia.”

Nasi said “normalization of ties with Israel may aim to send a message to the US Congress, whose favorable view and support on the modernization of F16s is very much sought for.”


Russian ship carrying ‘plundered’ Ukraine grain reaches Syria: embassy

Updated 18 August 2022

Russian ship carrying ‘plundered’ Ukraine grain reaches Syria: embassy

  • "According to our information, SV KONSTANTIN has docked in Syria," the embassy said
  • It said the ship was carrying "grains that were plundered and illegally transported by the Russian occupation authorities"

BEIRUT: A Russian cargo ship allegedly carrying stolen Ukrainian grain has reached Syria, Kyiv’s embassy in Beirut said Thursday, the latest in a series of contested shipments arriving in the war-torn country.
“According to our information, SV KONSTANTIN has docked in Syria,” the embassy said in a statement to AFP.
It said the ship was carrying “grains that were plundered and illegally transported by the Russian occupation authorities,” adding that the vessel was initially destined for the Lebanese port of Tripoli.
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russian forces of ransacking its grain warehouses since they invaded the country in late February.
The embassy’s statement came as another cargo ship carrying the first shipment of grain allowed to leave Ukraine under a UN-backed deal reportedly unloaded its cargo at the Syrian port of Tartus, which is managed by a Russian firm.
The Sierra Leone-flagged vessel Razoni was expected to arrive in Lebanon, but the shipment’s five-month delay prompted the Lebanese buyer to cancel the deal once the ship was already at sea, Ukrainian officials had said.
According to Samir Madani, co-founder of oil shipping monitoring website TankerTrackers.com, the vessel docked in Tartus earlier this week.
Satellite imagery appeared to show that the ship — which was carrying 26,000 tons of corn — was unloading its cargo, Madani tweeted on Thursday.
Earlier this month, a Syrian-flagged ship was briefly seized by Lebanese authorities following similar claims by the Ukrainian embassy that it was laden with stolen cargo.
Lebanon later released the Laodicea vessel after investigations failed to prove it carried stolen goods, drawing criticism from Kyiv’s embassy.
The Laodicea started unloading its cargo at Tartus on August 8, according to Syrian state media.
Syria is a staunch ally of Russia, which intervened in the country’s civil war in 2015 to support President Bashar Assad’s government.
Moscow has lent Damascus very limited amounts of financial aid, but it has supplied Syria with wheat as a form of assistance.
The Syrian government relies on Moscow for the bulk of its wheat imports.